Too close to call as Burren and Clonduff face off in last four
Morgan Fuels Down SFC semi-final: St Mary's, Burren v Clonduff (tomorrow, Pairc Esler, 7.15pm – available live on Down GAA TV)
NO matter what way you try and spin this, a flip of a coin would be about as useful a way of trying to call who might come out the right side of tomorrow night's semi-final clash between Burren and Clonduff.
The St Mary's start as favourites with the bookies, due in no small part to their relatively straightforward passage – until the dying moments against Mayobridge anyway – into the last four, whereas Clonduff had to rebuild through the back door after defeat to county kingpins Kilcoo.
But looking at the make-up of both starting sides, there is very little to choose between them.
Burren have plenty of experience in the form of Gerard and Conaill McGovern, Mark McKay, Cathal Foy, Shay McArdle and Kevin McKernan, deployed at full-forward against the 'Bridge after Donal O'Hare started on the bench.
Jim McCorry has managed O'Hare with kid gloves through this championship campaign but, given that he scored three from play after being introduced in the 16th minute, the Burren boss could be tempted to start the Down star tomorrow.
Alongside that experienced backbone, however, is an exciting young crew, led by the brilliant Liam Kerr and bolstered by the talents of Ryan and Danny Magill, both so impressive in Down's Ulster U20 success during the summer.
That potent mix saw them prove too strong for last year's intermediate champions Saul before having 10 points to spare in victory over Glenn. They didn't have it so easy against an improving Mayobridge, but showed impressive character to land a late knockout blow through Odhran Murdock after Aaron Magill's added time goal pulled Ciaran McKeever's men level.
Coming out the right side of close contests like that can only help harness greater belief in a group growing in stature, and determined to claim back the title they last won in 2018.
Clonduff are at a similar point in their development, with the likes of Aidan Carr, county captain Darren O'Hagan and towering full-forward Arthur McConville aware they have to make every chance count when the big days come along.
Beyond them, though, there are plenty of building blocks in place for the years ahead – with young corner-back Tiernan McEvoy impressing this year, as have midfielder Tom Close and full-forward Eamon Brown, both of whom also starred with the Down U20s.
“For a long time we weren't getting batches of players through,” says Aidan Carr, who will line out alongside brother Ross and Charlie tomorrow.
“These guys are full of pace, full of energy, full of confidence. It's great to watch them play. Even the year above that, Lorcan Branagan, Charlie [Carr], Stephen McConville, there's groups throughout the team who have played underage, played alongside each other.
“But you need the experience too. You could see even the Burren game against Mayobridge - Kevy was very good, Conaill, Gerard McGovern…
“You don't want to put too much responsibility on the younger boys, or expect them to drive things straight away. The older boys are there to keep things calm, structured, keep the thing going in the right direction.”
And while they fell foul of neighbours Kilcoo in round two, the Yellas – under the stewardship of former Tyrone forward Ciaran McBride – have bounced back impressively, easing beyond league champions Warrenpoint before proving too strong for RGU Downpatrick in the last eight.
Barry O'Hagan has shown his undoubted class since a frustrating afternoon against the Magpies, while the momentum Clonduff have gathered through the back door could be a crucial factor.
“You didn't have any time to dwell on it,” says Carr of last month's defeat to Kilcoo, “that's the benefit of the back door.
“Because of the ability Barry has, he probably gets unfairly criticised if he has an off day. But Barry's not short of confidence, so Warrenpoint was a good game for him to come back into.
“We need him to perform to have any chance – he's aware of that, and everybody else is aware of that, unfortunately for him.”